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Tuesday, October 28, 2008

One Nation

The Bible is pretty clear about how people should live their lives. And in the U.S., faith-driven people no doubt identify more with the good book’s heroes than its villains. Yet it’s fair to ask, is this country living up to God’s expectations?

When the last vote is tallied and the last yard sign pulled down, Democrats and Republicans must go back to being "one nation under God." That's especially important when we're drowning in economic woes at home and fighting at least two wars abroad.

As a Christian, I'm mindful that most Americans are citizens of two kingdoms. They're loyal Americans, but they're also people of faith. Thus, their patriotism is tempered by their loyalty to a God who transcends all national and international boundaries whose precinct is the universe.

True patriotism exists where citizens love their country enough to hold it accountable. That means working to make certain that the president we have elected and the government we have created live up to the words of our creeds and the dreams of our poets and prophets.

That kind of patriotism is at the heart of authentic biblical faith. The great prophets of the Bible were considered unpatriotic by many of their day. No wonder. In two of Israel's most cataclysmic wars one in the eighth century B.C. and one in the sixth B.C. both Amos and Jeremiah had the unmitigated gall to tell the Hebrew people that God was not on their side!

Can you image the howl that would erupt if a preacher today suggested that God was using Arab terrorists to humble America? The First Amendment might save him from arrest (the prophet Jeremiah was not so lucky), but any such preacher would almost certainly be relieved of his pulpit duties, if not run out of town. I'll be the first one to write off the Rev. Jeremiah Wright as a fanatical, even dangerous man in our society. Nevertheless, our brand of religion and patriotism is so widespread in our country today that most of us would never entertain the notion that America's foreign or domestic policies might fall short of what God requires.

Part of our challenge stems from the fact that we Americans have an overabundance of self-confidence. Management guru Marshall Goldsmith reports that 70% of the 50,000 people he has surveyed rank themselves in the top 10% of their peer group. Among doctors, pilots and investment bankers, the number is even higher. Once when Goldsmith told a group of doctors that his "extensive research" had revealed that exactly half of all doctors graduated in the bottom half of their med-school class, two in the audience insisted that this was impossible. Do you suppose there's any possibility that Americans don't have a realistic view of themselves?

I suspect we read the Bible much the same way. We don't identify with the Egyptians, Babylonians or the multitude of Israelites who worshipped the golden calf. We identify with Abraham and Moses the good guys. Likewise, in the New Testament, we don't identify with the scribes and the Pharisees. And we certainly don't identify with those hated Romans. We identify with Peter, James and John. But like Goldsmith's surveyed physicians, we might be fooling ourselves. Look beneath the surface, and much of what's plaguing the world is what's plaguing us.

For starters, we're greedy. America consumes more than its fair share of most everything: gasoline, food, plastic, you name it. On a personal level, millions of us are overweight, overspent and overleveraged. The sub prime mortgage crisis is all about people wanting more than they can afford. And despite greed's appearance on the list of "seven deadly sins" and the Bible's admonishment to refrain from excessive borrowing, the average American carries more than $2,000 in credit card debt on top of his household mortgage. Collectively, we behave much the same way. The unpaid balance on our national debt now tops $10 trillion and is climbing at a breath-taking pace. Overall public debt and other obligations outstanding are easily measured in multiples of our national debt too.

We're also violent. The United States remains one of the most violent of the so-called developed nations. I'm not even talking here about our various wars and incursions. We kill one another at an alarming rate. According to the Children's Defense Fund (a non-profit that studies these things), a child is killed by a gun every three hours in the USA. That's eight a day. And that’s just the children.

I have read that perhaps the best measure of a nation is how it treats its most vulnerable citizens. Here, again, we Americans fall short. Our infant mortality rate is among the highest of the developed nations. (And that doesn't include the millions of infants that we slaughter through abortion.) Our old people are living in continually deteriorating circumstances. They are not well fed. Many miss important medications because they cannot afford them. Most live alone and are not cared for. Many of our nursing homes are a travesty. Ironically, many of our nursing homes are too full to take in all of the people who need them.

Although growing numbers of us are volunteering, our government's efforts overseas are proportionately relatively meager when compared to other prosperous nations. Most of the overseas assistance we do provide is military-related and in service of our own strategic goals. In contrast, the Bible time and again admonishes God's people to advance the cause of the poor and to show hospitality to foreigners. Interestingly, nations are also warned not to put our trust in weapons of war. On a personal level, our giving is not generous. While it is true that Americans individually give vast sums of money to charity, that can be deceiving. Americans do not tithe, for example. Barna Research has surveyed our giving and among self-identified born-again Christians, giving to church or other religious organizations is less than 3% of their gross household income.

Don't get me wrong. The U.S. is a great nation. I love my country. It has pushed the bounds of science and technology and brought prosperity to the masses, creating the world's largest middle class. We have defeated some of the world's vilest villains and brought freedom and the rule of law to the farthest reaches of the planet. But it is not perfect. Some would be surprised to know that the United States has toppled democratically elected governments in favor of “friendly” dictators and firebombed civilians. We consume resources at a dangerous pace and ravaged the environment in the process. And, we have gone from a progressive tax structure, that was built upon the biblical premise that to whom much is given much is required, to one that provides massive tax relief to the people who need it least --- the rich.

The faith community has our work cut out for us if America is to be the beacon envisioned by some of our greatest leaders. And if self-awareness is the beginning of wisdom, perhaps we should start by reading the Bible with different eyes. Maybe we're not ancient Israel. Maybe we're Rome!

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